When I was a child, my mother and father doled out advice from their own lessons learned, serenading their five children with wisdom like love songs from their key of life. They tended to the five of us with their protective clause for everything: plan cautiously to avoid heartache. After all the heartache our blended family had endured before assembling as I knew it, I wanted to heed my parents’ advice, especially once I started having children of my own. Even so, I always learned best by feeling my way along.

My daughter was born after sunrise, two weeks before Christmas. Above my birthing table was a strip of masking tape on which a happy face had been drawn in pencil. It was part of someone else’s joyful birth plan, stuck on the ceiling tiles like sentimental residue, but I embraced it as if it were my own.

I gave birth to my second child, a boy, in January at a clinic near our apartment in Germany. Outside, the snow I’d been waiting for all winter had finally begun to fall. I wanted to tell the midwife in German that my mother was due to arrive from the U.S. any minute. I crafted the sentence carefully in my head before saying it out loud.

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Nein,” she corrected when I made a grammatical error, “Meine mutter ist heute aus den USA gekommen.”

I laughed. It was Germany after all; even on a birthing bed, we had to get the grammar right.

When I started thinking about having a third child, I tried to convince myself I’d be a better, more relaxed mom if I only had two kids. I agonized for months before we moved back to the U.S.: did I want two or three? Soon, the thought of a third baby became a ballast amid the roil of a new house, new schools, and new friends: I knew how to have babies, and I knew it well. Desire took hold of my ankle like a stubborn troll: it was three or bust.

Somewhere inside, I worried about being a mother who was still prone to such wavering and buckling, such initial uncertainty about something so huge. This, I feared, was the mark of a child, something to be conquered in adulthood, yet in me it remained.

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That September, shortly after we had settled into our new town, I drove to my 10-week prenatal appointment. The office staff offered their congratulations and handed me a stack of paperwork. I copied my due date on each form uneasily: I had seen the baby’s heartbeat on an ultrasound two weeks earlier, but I was having terrible headaches. Something was different—maybe, I hoped, I had just forgotten what it was like.

An hour later, the pixelated screen on the ultrasound monitor confirmed in black and white what I had already suspected: the baby was curled up like a bleached nautilus shell, floating in still and silent orbit.

“There’s no heartbeat. We’d have seen it already. There’s no heartbeat,” I repeated, the words and their steady, staccato beats preceding my crescendo into fury. The ultrasound technician nodded sadly. I was having my first miscarriage.

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I texted my husband, who was at work, calmly waiting for what had until that point always been the same old good news: “I’m having a miscarriage.”

After the D&C surgery, I felt raw, as though my insides had been hollowed out with a raven’s claw.

“It wasn’t a baby yet,” my mother coached softly over the phone.

I glanced outside at the leafy branches nodding in the autumn wind. Inside of me there was nothing, as if each breath I took merely entered and spread out thinly over a cool and damp concrete floor.

A week later, days before my sister’s wedding, a blood clot formed. I endured a second procedure, exactly like the first. That baby was tarrying on its way out —mournful and forlorn, ever part of me.

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“We’ll try to preserve fertility,” the emergency room doctor said, patting my lap without sympathy.

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I had two children, after all. A third child had been an afterthought, a bonus buck. Perhaps I had been too cavalier—if only I had wanted it more. At night I lay awake, brooding, spinning in emotional inertia. I wondered whether the one I had lost would have had eyes like my daughter or my son—hers, polished hazel agates; his, tawny slices of petrified wood.

Over the next six months, I lost two more early, “chemical” pregnancies, which compounded my grief with the implication that they never existed anyway.

“You once said that you didn’t even want another baby,” my mother reminded me, begging me in her way to stop trying. Avoid heartache, she wanted to say.

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Please, I thought, just let me make this beautiful thing.

At last, I met an endocrinologist willing to inspect my aggregate clues. Linked together, they fashioned a biological map leading to my thyroid. All I needed was a simple medication adjustment to set things right.

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When I held my third child for the first time, I hovered over his skin, still fragrant from birth. I wept wearily at first and soon deepened into a heaving, trembling tempest. It was gratitude I felt, for my son but also for myself: I had set my own course, yawning, sunken grief and all. I was sanguine and satisfied, ever harbored from the sway of questioning why.

Two summers later, when sleep had returned, things had changed for me. If my own family was a boulder planted in the shallow sea, I was no longer fastened to it like a barnacle: I reached a toe into the dark, churning water and followed with a foot, a knee, a torso. I began writing again, more fiercely. I trained as a runner again, more willingly. Passing through the sticky entrapment of grief had ripened me into a force more daring, determined, and assured of my own capability than ever. I had been seeking this proof of self, one that only I could offer, for a long time.

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That August, my son and I sat on my mother’s front porch. He slapped his fleshy hands on my cheeks and pulled me in for a kiss on the lips.

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“Some day, you’ll have to tell him how much you wanted him,” my mother said, looking on.

I nodded, gazing at my winsome youngest child, his eyes two charming pools of blue from nowhere—once a mirage, now right and true. I had wanted him, yes, but that was not all. Even now, my mother’s voice lingers in my ear: Use your head to avoid heartache, it says, and that seems safe and wise. Yet I now know, as my mother surely does, that sometimes when the heart leads, however messy the dash, you become the person you want to be.

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Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia and tweets @SimShanley. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.

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